The design of early American coinage reflected a strong European influence, but helped America
loosen political and cultural ties with Europe, dating from the colonial era, through nationalistic
displays and uniquely American portrayals. First settled by the British well over a century before
independence was declared, America had a strong bond with Europe, especially Britain. Just as a child
learns from a parent, America learned from Britain and other European countries, and one field in
which the influence is easily seen is numismatics. While early American coins were tailored to be
American by design, the initial European roots can be seen, just as Latin roots can be seen in the
As the seventeenth century closed and the eighteenth century dawned, the British colonies in
America saw few coins produced on their side of the Atlantic. New England produced a series of coins
featuring indigenous trees beginning in 1652 (Figure 1), and Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore,
was successful in producing coins, with his image, in the colony of Maryland in 1659 (Vlack 17).
However, most circulating coins in his colony, as well as the other colonies, still came from
Europe and other European colonies in the Americas. Those included coins made in France for their
American colonies that meandered into British-American use, as well as numerous coins made in Great
Britain such as St. Patrick coinage and Rosa American coinage. The common use of Spanish-American,
Portuguese, and Dutch coins, as well as coinage from other European countries, was also accepted by
the British colonists in keeping with the metal-based system. (Vlack 9).
One of the first coins made in England for use in America was the American Plantation Token. Circa
1688, the Tower Mint in London~ under the watch of King James II began producing the Plantation token,
made from tin, for colonial use, where "American Plantation" referred to the American colonies, known
as plantations in England. (American Plantations Token). Coming from England, part of the design was
considerably similar to that of English coinage. The reverse of the coin displayed the same symbols as
seen on such coins as the King James II crown, half crown, and shilling, differing only with the pattern
surrounding the symbols (Mitchell 229). Also displaying those symbols, as well as a figure of then reigning
King George III, was the Virginia coinage of 1773 (Figure 2), also produced in England. These coins, the
first to be officially sanctioned as legal tender in the English colonies, were delayed in their release
because the monarchy failed to issue instructions that would legally authorize their circulation. By the
time they were widespread in 1775, the majority of the coins were hoarded "as a sense of war became imminent"
(Vlack 36). As time progressed and the Declaration of Independence was written, the colonies, and later the
United States government, began producing their own coinage. Although the designs differed from British
designs to an extent, their roots can be easily traced.
In 1672, British coinage first portrayed the figure of Britannia, the female personification of Britain.
At this time, she would appear "seated on a rock, holding a spear, and with a spiked shield propped beside her,"
and she would continue to appear that way for centuries to come (Figure 3).
By the mid-eighteenth century, among the coinage of numerous European powers, many coins featuring Britannia
were circulating in the English colonies, including copper farthings and halfpence, where the reigning king was
featured on the obverse of the coin (Colonial Coins). As America began to produce its own money, the effects of
a century of circulating British copper would be shown numerous times.
Following the Revolutionary War, English imposed bans and restrictions on manufacture, including the manufacture
of coins, were lifted. In exchange for a requirement to pay a percentage of their production to state treasuries,
private contractors were authorized to coin money for different states, retaining all coins not sent to the treasuries
to pay for the costs of manufacturing, as well as for their personal profit (Vlack 43). Amidst the numerous states
partaking in the coining of copper money, the majority designed some or all of their money to look considerably like
British copper pieces, as well as the money of other states (Vlack 45).
While some states, such as New Jersey (Figure 4) and Massachusetts, featured unique designs, other states, such as
Connecticut (Figure 5), Vermont, and New York, featured designs strikingly similar to one another, as well as to the
copper coins of Britain. The vast majority of the coins produced by each of those states featured an obverse with a bust
of a male, and a reverse featuring a portrait of Liberty, an American personification analogous to Britannia, sitting.
On some coins, the designs' similarities were such that the only major difference was the Latin text on the coin. For
example, in 1786, Connecticut issued a copper piece where the obverse featured a male's bust facing left with the words,
from left to right, surrounding the bust, "AUCTORI: CONNEC:" (By the authority of Connecticut). On the reverse, Liberty
is seated and holding a staff in her left hand and an olive branch in her right, surrounded by, "INDE ET LIB" (Independence
and Liberty) (Yeoman, 41). Strikingly similar is a copper coin produced in Vermont, also in 1786. On the obverse, the bust
of a male facing left is surrounded by the text, "VERMON: AUCTORI:" (By the authority of Vermont). The reverse, just like
on the Connecticut copper, features Liberty seated, a staff in her left hand and an olive branch in her right, surrounded
by the words, "INDE ET LIB" (Yeoman 52).
Both the copper coins of Connecticut and Vermont, highly similar to each other, can also be related to the George III
copper farthings from Britain that circulated in the English colonies. Featured on his farthings was his portrait, surrounded
by "GEORGIVS · III · REX ·" (George III, King). On the reverse was Britannia, seated and holding a staff in her left hand
and an olive branch in her right, surrounded by her name, "BRITANNIA" (Mitchell 264). To further show the similarities
between state issues and British designs, one must take into consideration the George III coppers produced in America from
1771 until 1788. With careful viewing, one can see that some of these coins, in essence counterfeit British farthings, have
identical reverses as state issues, showing how dies were used for multiple issues, even in multiple states, as the designs
themselves were so similar (Vlack 72).
In 1791, in an attempt to encourage the United States to purchase circulating coinage or the tools to coin money, the Soho
Mint of Birmingham, England, produced a series of coins featuring George Washington, much like British coins featured their
royalty, and an eagle, the national bird (Figure 6). Benjamin Franklin, a friend of the two minters, Matthew Boulton and James
Watt, served as a liaison between the British mint and George Washington. While Washington "refused to allow his head to appear
in this fashion on the coins of a democratic country," (Vlack 106) Boulton and Watt were still able to sell coin presses to the
United States (Money Law), as well as create a profound effect on the future of United States coinage.
While the eagle had previously appeared on some American coinage such as the Massachusetts copper, it had never been on a coin
designed to be used throughout the United States until Boulton and Watt introduced it in 1791 on their Washington copper. The United
States Constitution states that, "No state shall coin money, emit bills of credit, make anything but gold and silver coin a tender
in payment of debts" (Ganz 1). This statement, ratified in 1788, thwarted the states from continuing their production of coinage,
yet the United States still had not established a national mint. Then, four years later, in the Coinage Act of April 2, 1792, the
Senate and House of Representatives stated, "That a Mint for the purpose of a national coinage be, and the same is established"
(Ganz 1). The Act continued to speak of who shall work at the mint, their salaries, and other fine details of the formation of the
mint before it mentioned the following:
That, upon the said coins respectively, there shall be the following devices and legends, namely: Upon one side
of each of the said coins there shall be an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word Liberty, and the year
of coinage; and upon the reverse of each of the gold and silver coins there shall be the figure or representation of an eagle, with
this inscription, "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" ... (Ganz4).
In 1794, the first silver half dollar and dollar coins were produced in the Philadelphia Mint (Figure 7). The seemingly emaciated
eagle, dubbed by many a "scrawny eagle," was not well received, and was changed over a period of a few years. First appearing on the
gold half eagle of 1795, the new reverse design, a heraldic eagle (Figure 8), combined the tradition of heraldry using a coat of arms,
dating back to twelfth century Europe, with the national bird of a new country. "The closest thing the republic had to a coat of arms
was the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States," (The Heraldic Eagle) and thus it was used.
From 1798 and on, all coins required to have an eagle featured this design, along with its one gaping flaw. Along with its entirety
being representative of the United States, the eagle's claws are also symbolic. The right claw, considered the honorable claw, is
supposed to hold an olive branch, symbolizing peace being honorable. On the other hand, the left claw is considered the sinister and is
supposed to hold arrows, symbolizing that war is wrong. Whether an honest mistake or not, the designer, Robert Scot, switched the arrows
and olive branch as if to say that he, or the United States, was in favor of war, not peace (The Heraldic Eagle). The design remained
unchanged until 1808, when a new eagle, holding the olive branch and arrows in the correct talons, was introduced to gold coins, and
then to silver coins in 1809 (Yeoman 201).
Along with requiring the eagle to appear on certain coinage, Liberty, both the word and personification, was also required by law. The
first United States coins minted following the Coinage Act of 1792 with known quantities minted were the liberty capped half cent and the
chain cent (Figure 9), both of 1793 and both showing the face of Liberty with flowing hair. As the years progressed, more denominations
were produced, and Liberty found many different poses, seemingly maturing with the United States mint as more detail and complexity were
added. In 1837, following many busts of Liberty, a new pose, reminiscent of Britannia, made its debut on the half dime and dime, showing
that although the United States had been an independent nation for over half a century, its British roots had still not been forgotten.
Although the Coinage Act of 1792 required coins to display nationalistic symbols, coins produced by the United States government displayed
similar symbols many years prior. One such coin was the simple, yet powerful Bar copper, coined circa 1785. Apparently based on the design of
a Continental button, the coin features an overlapping "USA" on the obverse, and thirteen plain bars on the reverse. "The separate thirteen
states (bars) unite into a single entity as symbolized by the interlocking letters (USA)" (Yeoman 53). While its exact origins, England or the
United States, are still unknown, its symbolism, portrayed with simple elegance, is very well understood. Also prior to the Coinage Act of 1792
was the Fugio cent of 1787 (Figure 10). Made with the intention of creating a federal weight standard for coinage due to the increasing number
of counterfeits circulating, the Fugios displayed similarity to the Continental pattern dollars of 1776, a design of Benjamin Franklin. The
obverse of the coin features a sundial, representing time, and the word "FUGIO," Latin for "I Fly," which translates to mean "Time Flies." Also
written on the obverse is "MIND YOUR BUSINESS," referring to tending to and caring for one's business. Taken from Benjamin Franklin's POOR
RICHARD'S ALMANACK, these two mottos were designed to help businesses, as prospering businesses would help the country as a whole prosper
(Kessler 2). The reverse of the coin features thirteen linked chains, symbolizing the unity of the thirteen states. On some varieties, each
link in the chain contains the name of a state, and on all varieties, the chain surrounds the words "WE ARE ONE" and "UNITED STATES" (Kessler 42).
Following the Coinage Act of 1792, the idea of state unity displayed by the Bar and Fugio coppers was not forgotten. Like the Fugio copper, the
first cent made by the Philadelphia Mint, the chain cent of 1793, portrayed fifteen links in a chain on the reverse, one for each state. With the
heavy use of slavery in the country, the chain was unjustly considered a representation of bondage. The production of chain cents was quickly halted,
and the chain was replaced with a wreath (1793 Chain Cents).
Just as the coinage of the United States reflected nationalism by law, it also represented the United States by portraying objects, creatures, and
people that were uniquely or most commonly American, much like the Hudson River School painted uniquely American landscapes. One example is the wreath
seen on the dimes minted between 1860 and 1916, known as "Newlin's Wreath of Cereals" (Figure 11). While the exact contents of the wreath are disputed,
they are known to be crops and plants of the United States. Speculation includes cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, wheat, maple, and oak. Com, introduced to
the first settlers of Massachusetts is indisputably a part of the wreath (Marotta 498). Also featuring American crops is the Morgan silver dollar, first
minted in 1878. On the coin, Liberty "wears a coronet with the word Liberty surrounded by cotton and wheat, staples of our young nation" (Morgan Silver
Along with crops, other uniquely American portrayals were made. One was on the Indian Head cent, first minted in 1859 (Figure 12). While Americans
expressed strong animosity towards their American Indian neighbors for well over a century, this cent portrays Liberty wearing a headdress, as if she were
an Indian (Yeoman 94). Two years before the Indian Head cent was removed from circulation, the Indian Head gold eagle of 1907 was released, followed in 1908
with the Indian Head quarter and half eagles, all featuring a male Indian on the obverse (Yeoman 216).
One final United States coin that features an Indian is the Buffalo nickel, first minted in 1913 (Figure 13). On the reverse of this coin is another uniquely
American creature, the bison, or American buffalo. "The bison was modeled after 'Black Diamond' in the New York Zoological Gardens" (Yeoman 109), and is clearly
an animal native and unique to North America (Oakland Zoo).
Based on a strong European, especially British, influence from the colonial era, American coinage helped create governmental autonomy from Europe as it displayed
many nationalistic symbols and uniquely American portrayals. With designs nearly identical to European designs, the first coins produced in America for Americans
soon evolved into coins portraying themes of peace, unity, and liberty. As time progressed, United States coinage matured and took on many new designs, but even into
the twentieth century, the designs of American coinage can be traced back to coins which circulated in the colonies over two centuries prior.